Archive for May, 2015


A few days after our Luna moth excitement, on the same walk between school and car, Mark and I found a caterpillar on the sidewalk. Of course, given all our recent talk about moths, butterflies, and lepidopteral transformations in general, we had to pick it up and bring it home. It was quite pretty – a yellow keyhole looking design down the middle of its back, and stripes of pale turquoise and brown on its sides. I tried to identify it online to find out what kinds of leaves it would eat, while Mark kept it from climbing out of a tupperware container. It turned out to be a forest tent moth caterpillar – entirely common, generally considered pests, but nevertheless an object of interest to both of us, so we gathered leaves and sticks and made it a home in a large mason jar to observe it.

I can’t say that I ever saw it actively eating, but it did actively produce some pretty large evidence of digestion, so I suppose it ate something. Given how big it was when we found it, I figured it must be in its last caterpillar instar. On the second day it spent most of the day in the neck of the jar, only moving enough to assure us it was still alive. On the third day it started to enclose itself in the pillowy white threads of a cocoon. I was watching it as I wrote this – the caterpillar still visible inside. It moved almost constantly, twisting and squirming itself around more and more tightly within the structure it was creating out of its own body. I must say, the process did not look comfortable. Actually it looked downright painful, and wasn’t very enjoyable to watch, however interesting. From the obliging internet I know that within the cocoon the caterpillar skin will split, and the pupa case will emerge. Then, after a while, the pupa itself will split, and the moth emerge. If all of this goes well, then we’ll observe the moth a bit and let it go. In the meantime, I’m feeling more unnerved by the whole thing than I would have expected.

As I was telling my students the other day, I think Lepidoptera are incredible as a species because of the way they grow and develop. All living things grow, but not all go through such radical changes. In addition, each instar develops inside the previous one, and bursts out of it, splitting the skin of its former incarnation – which is theoretically beautiful, but rather grotesque and violent in actuality. How is it even possible that all of these instars are the same being? And at what point does one instar stop being the one that is alive, and pass on life to the next? It would be like being pregnant, but knowing (somehow) that the thing with which you are pregnant is supposed to be yourself, and that giving birth to it (to you) will mean your own destruction. And there is nothing you can do to stop it.

Which is, I guess, not that different from how pregnancy actually does work, except the destruction isn’t a necessity, so instead, ideally, two instars go on to live individual lives, which is awesome. But as a mother, there are moments when you marvel and also grieve that this independent little being once got everything he (or she) needed from you, but now has the whole world to learn and grown in. Then again, it is comforting to remind myself, as a daughter, that I have not stopped needing my mother, or learning from her, and she helps me grow all the time.

It’s easy to leap to historical similes. Like the caterpillar creating its next incarnation inside itself, every generation creates within itself the generation that will succeed it, and we are told we must think of the future, live in the consideration of what we are creating for our children, our children’s children, and so on.

But don’t we want to snatch something for ourselves, too?

It is painful and uncomfortable to see and feel the ideas and assumptions of one age split open by the new life that is coming out of it. It is contradictory and confusing to think that what is emerging will be larger than that from which it emerges. While we are alive, instinct moves us to nourish and protect ourselves, but instinct also urges us to create life beyond ourselves. Then when that life is created, sometimes it seems to take energy and life from us – to tell us we have been misguided, misinformed, unjustified, simply wrong. That we don’t deserve life. Often the first meal of a newly emerged instar is the now dead remains of its previous self.

I’ve been going through my own changes. I see my close community, and many other communities of all sizes, going through changes. They are violent. They are pitting deeply help beliefs – often older ones – against deeply held beliefs based on newer ideas, discoveries, new ways of understanding and living. It’s terrifying. On a daily basis my anxiety tells me that the world is ending – even though I can look around and see that it’s right here, and not so much has changed. I hope, I hope, that what comes out of these changes will be bigger, more beautiful, worth all the pain of getting to it. But the question, from this moment inside the changes, is what will survive? What will survive of myself, what will survive of my community, what will survive of all our communities?

The whole thing would seem to be teleological – working toward the end – which we see as the moth, or butterfly. But in looking into moth life cycles I learned that many moths – Luna moths included – do not even have mouths. They live only a few days, and consume nothing for themselves. They live only to produce eggs. So what seems to us to be the end of the life cycle, because it is the most articulated and (to us) beautiful, is just another one of the stages, working to create the life that will succeed it – in the world not for itself, but for the future that it creates out of itself.

That’s a lesson, if not the most hopeful one. Just as we are not the end of the unfolding of history, neither should we consider anything we’ve created as an end in itself, no matter how beautiful or productive or how seemingly necessary. No generation is in the world only to consume – we must also actively work for the future, even if it seems that that future implies the destruction of the present state of things.

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